Grand Central Terminal opens in New York City


Year
1913
Month Day
February 02

On February 2, 1913, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal opens for the first time. The transportation hub as we know it today began construction in 1903, but before that 89 E 42nd was home to an older steam train station built in 1879. Even though the station had been updated to deal with an increased volume of commuters coming from suburbs outside the city, a collision between outdated steam trains in 1902 killed 15 people, and made it clear that a more substantial renovation was needed.

That same year, engineer William Wilgus and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt began planning the landmark that Grand Central is today. They proposed a station with new electric trains that would not emit exhaust fumes and could, for the first time, operate underground. Planning officials also changed the station’s name. Technically a station, because trains no longer went south of Grand Central Station, the hub was renamed Grand Central Terminal. While these renovations and improvements had practical value, the more significant impact that both Wilgus and Vanderbilt hoped to create was cultural.

Grand Central was designed to usher New York into the dynamic 20th century. As the world around it grew increasingly interconnected, Vanderbilt wanted Grand Central to overtake its rival Penn Station as the palatial gateway to the heart of a rapidly growing country. That ambition was manifested in the form of a towering white marble facade and a ceiling mural depicting God’s view of the sky. After almost 10 years of construction and more than $4 billion in today’s money, New York’s architectural marvel opened to the world.

Despite initial success, Grand Central eventually fell into severe disrepair due to an increase in highway use and gradual neglect. Even the ceiling blackened due to cigarette smoke. As early as 1945, there were calls to tear down the building. However, the destruction of the original Penn Station between 1963 and 1966 sparked a movement to preserve architecturally significant buildings in New York, including Grand Central. Several high-profile New Yorkers, including former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis and architect Philip Johnson, formed The Committee to Save Grand Central. The committee fought to preserve Grand Central’s status as a landmark building, ensuring it could never be torn down. A $100 million restoration beginning in 1980 reestablished Grand Central as a bustling monument to the power and grandeur of New York City.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Grand Central

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Great Boston Molasses Flood


Year
1919
Month Day
January 15

Fiery hot molasses floods the streets of Boston on January 15, 1919, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others. The molasses burst from a huge tank at the United States Industrial Alcohol Company building in the heart of the city.

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The United States Industrial Alcohol building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and Boston was experiencing some unseasonably warm weather as workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. An eight-foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them.

The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally knocked over the local firehouse and then pushed over the support beams for the elevated train line. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-year-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. Nearly $1 million was paid in settlement of the claims.

READ MORE: Why the Great Molasses Flood Was So Deadly

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Oklahoma enters the Union

Year
1907
Month Day
November 16

Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory collectively enter the United States as Oklahoma, the 46th state.

Oklahoma, with a name derived from the Choctaw Indian words okla, meaning “people,” and humma, meaning “red,” has a history of human occupation dating back 15,000 years. The first Europeans to visit the region were Spanish explorers in the 16th century, and in the 18th century the Spanish and French struggled for control of the territory. The United States acquired Oklahoma from France in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

After the War of 1812, the U.S. government decided to remove Indian tribes from the settled eastern lands of the United States and move them west to the unsettled lands of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. In 1828, Congress reserved Oklahoma for Indians and in 1834 formally ceded it to five southeastern tribes as Indian Territory. Many Cherokees refused to abandon their homes east of the Mississippi, and so the U.S. Army moved them west in a forced march known as the “Trail of Tears.” The uprooted tribes joined Plains Indians that had long occupied the area, and Indian nations with fixed boundaries and separate governments were established in the region.

During the American Civil War, most tribes in Indian Territory supported the South. With the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, the territory was placed under U.S. military rule. White cattlemen and settlers began to covet the virgin ranges of Oklahoma, and after the arrival of the railroad in the 1870s, illegal white incursion into Indian Territory flourished. Most of these “Boomers” were expelled, but pressure continued until the federal government agreed in 1889 to open two million acres in central Oklahoma for white settlement. At noon on April 22, 1889, a pistol shot signaled the opening of the new land, and tens of thousands of people rushed to stake claims. Those who had already made illegal entry to beat the starting gun were called “Sooners,” hence Oklahoma’s state nickname. The following year, the region was divided into Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory.

In 1907, Congress decided to admit Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory into the Union as a single state. Representatives of the two territories drafted a constitution, and on September 17, 1907, it was approved by voters of the two territories. On November 16, Oklahoma was welcomed into the United States by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Oklahoma initially prospered as an agricultural state, but the drought years of the 1930s made the state part of the Dust Bowl. During the Depression, poor tenant farmers known as “Okies” were forced to travel west seeking better opportunities. In the 1940s, prosperity returned to Oklahoma, and oil production brought a major economic boom in the 1970s.

READ MORE: The Oklahoma Land Rush

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U.S. ends search for Pancho Villa


Year
1917
Month Day
January 28

American forces are recalled from Mexico after nearly 11 months of fruitless searching for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was accused of leading a bloody raid against Columbus, New Mexico.

In 1914, following the resignation of Mexican leader Victoriano Huerta, Pancho Villa and his former revolutionary ally Venustiano Carranza battled each other in a struggle for succession. By the end of 1915, Villa had been driven north into the mountains, and the U.S. government recognized General Carranza as the president of Mexico.

In January 1916, to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s support for Carranza, Villa executed 16 U.S. citizens at Santa Isabel in northern Mexico. Then, on March 9, 1916, Villa led a band of several hundred guerrillas across the border and raided the town of Columbus, killing 17 Americans. U.S. troops pursued the Mexicans, killing 50 on U.S. soil and 70 more in Mexico.

On March 15, under orders from President Wilson, U.S. Brigadier General John J. Pershing launched a punitive expedition into Mexico to capture Villa dead or alive. For the next 11 months, Pershing, like Carranza, failed to capture the elusive revolutionary and Mexican resentment over the U.S. intrusion into their territory led to a diplomatic crisis. On June 21, the crisis escalated into violence when Mexican government troops attacked Pershing’s forces at Carrizal, Mexico, leaving 17 Americans killed or wounded, and 38 Mexicans dead. In late January 1917, having failed in their mission to capture Villa and under pressure from the Mexican government, the Americans were ordered home.

Villa continued his guerrilla activities in northern Mexico until Adolfo de la Huerta took power over the government and drafted a reformist constitution. Villa entered into an amicable agreement with Huerta and agreed to retire from politics. In 1920, the government pardoned Villa, but three years later he was assassinated at Parral.

READ MORE: Pancho Villa – Facts, Death & Life

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Fire engulfs circus big top in Hartford, killing 167

Year
1944
Month Day
July 06

In Hartford, Connecticut, a fire breaks out under the big top of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus, killing 167 people and injuring 682. Two-thirds of those who perished were children. The cause of the fire was unknown, but it spread at incredible speed, racing up the canvas of the circus tent. Scarcely before the 8,000 spectators inside the big top could react, patches of burning canvas began falling on them from above, and a stampede for the exits began. Many were trapped under fallen canvas, but most were able to rip through it and escape. However, after the tent’s ropes burned and its poles gave way, the whole burning big top came crashing down, consuming those who remained inside. Within 10 minutes it was over, and some 100 children and 60 of their adult escorts were dead or dying.

An investigation revealed that the tent had undergone a treatment with flammable paraffin thinned with three parts of gasoline to make it waterproof. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus eventually agreed to pay $5 million in compensation, and several of the organizers were convicted on manslaughter charges. In 1950, in a late development in the case, Robert D. Segee of Circleville, Ohio, confessed to starting the Hartford circus fire. Segee claimed that he had been an arsonist since the age of six and that an apparition of an Indian on a flaming horse often visited him and urged him to set fires. In November 1950, Segee was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 22 years in prison, the maximum penalty in Ohio at the time.

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The Great Baltimore Fire begins


Year
1904
Month Day
February 07

In Baltimore, Maryland, a small fire in the business district is wind-whipped into an uncontrollable conflagration that engulfs a large portion of the city by evening. The fire is believed to have been started by a discarded cigarette in the basement of the Hurst Building. When the blaze finally burned down after 31 hours, an 80-block area of the downtown area, stretching from the waterfront to Mount Vernon on Charles Street, had been destroyed. More than 1,500 buildings were completely leveled, and some 1,000 severely damaged, bringing property loss from the disaster to an estimated $100 million. Miraculously, official reports said no homes or lives were lost—although some reports did say one African American man perished—and Baltimore’s domed City Hall, built in 1867, was preserved.

The Great Baltimore Fire was the most destructive fire in the United States since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed most of the city and caused an estimated $200 million in property damage.

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Queen of American high society dies

Year
1908
Month Day
October 30

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, wife of William Waldorf Astor, the wealthy newspaper proprietor, dies at the age of 78.

Even before her union with William Astor—the grandson of the American fur magnate John Jacob Astor—Caroline Schermerhorn was prime American aristocracy: She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and descended from Dutch nobles. In 1890, William and Caroline immigrated to Britain, where they bought their way into British nobility. But their British citizenship, and William’s title of viscount, were only means of advancing their already formidable position in New York society. Caroline’s death marked the end of old-style high society in New York City. She had ruled over the upper crust as an un-crowned American queen, and an invitation to one of Mrs. Astor’s famous balls was the ultimate symbol of one’s social rank.

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New York Public Library dedicated

Year
1911
Month Day
May 23

In a ceremony presided over by President William Howard Taft, the New York Public Library, the largest marble structure ever constructed in the United States, is dedicated in New York City. Occupying a two-block section of Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, the monumental beaux-arts structure took 14 years to complete at a cost of $9 million. The day after its dedication, the library opened its doors to the public, and some 40,000 citizens passed through to make use of a collection that already consisted of more than a million books.

In the late 19th century, New York had surpassed Paris in population and was quickly catching up with London, then the world’s most populous city. Unlike these cities, however, it lacked a public library large enough to serve its many citizens. In 1886, former New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden died, bequeathing to the city $2.4 million to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” The gift remained unspent until May 23, 1895, when New York’s two largest libraries–the Astor and Lenox libraries–agreed to combine with the Tilden Trust to form a new entity that would be known as The New York Public Library. Sixteen years later to the day, the main branch of the library was dedicated in midtown Manhattan.

During the next few decades, thanks in large part to a $5.2 million gift from steel baron Andrew Carnegie, a system of branch libraries opened throughout New York City. Today, the New York Public Library is visited and used annually by more than 10 million people, and there are currently well over two million cardholders, more than for any other library system in the nation.

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Japanese cherry trees planted along the Potomac

In Washington, D.C., Helen Taft, wife of President William Taft, and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, plant two Yoshino cherry trees on the northern bank of the Potomac River, near the Jefferson Memorial. The event was held in celebration of a gift, by the Japanese government, of 3,020 cherry trees to the U.S. government.

The planting of Japanese cherry trees along the Potomac was first proposed by socialite Eliza Scidmore, who raised money for the endeavor. Helen Taft had lived in Japan while her husband was president of the Philippine Commission, and knowing the beauty of cherry blossoms she embraced Scidmore’s idea. After learning of the first lady’s interest, the Japanese consul in New York suggested making a gift of the trees to the U.S. government from the city of Tokyo.

In January 1910, 2,000 Japanese cherry trees arrived in Washington from Japan but had fallen prey to disease during the journey. In response, a private Japanese citizen donated the funds to transport a new batch of trees, and 3,020 specimens were taken from the famous collection on the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, a suburb of Tokyo. In March 1912, the trees arrived in Washington, and on March 27 the first two trees were planted along the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin in a formal ceremony. The rest of the trees were then planted along the basin, in East Potomac Park, and on the White House grounds.

The blossoming trees proved immediately popular with visitors to Washington’s Mall area, and in 1934 city commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the late March blossoming of the trees, which grew into the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. After World War II, cuttings from Washington’s cherry trees were sent back to Japan to restore the Tokyo collection that was decimated by American bombing attacks during the war.

READ MORE: The Drama Behind 100 Years of Washington’s Cherry Blossoms

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Theodore Roosevelt makes Grand Canyon a national monument


Year
1908
Month Day
January 11

On January 11, 1908, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt declares the massive Grand Canyon in northwestern Arizona a national monument.

Though Native Americans lived in the area as early as the 13th century, the first European sighting of the canyon wasn’t until 1540, by members of an expedition headed by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Because of its remote and inaccessible location, several centuries passed before North American settlers really explored the canyon. In 1869, geologist John Wesley Powell led a group of 10 men in the first difficult journey down the rapids of the Colorado River and along the length of the 277-mile gorge in four rowboats.

By the end of the 19th century, the Grand Canyon was attracting thousands of tourists each year. One famous visitor was President Theodore Roosevelt, a New Yorker with a particular affection for the American West.After becoming president in1901 after the assassination of President William McKinley, Roosevelt made environmental conservation a major part of his presidency. After establishing the National Wildlife Refuge to protect the country’s animals, fish and birds, Roosevelt turned his attention to federal regulation of public lands. Though a region could be given national park status–indicating that all private development on that land was illegal–only by an act of Congress, Roosevelt cut down on red tape by beginning a new presidential practice of granting a similar “national monument” designation to some of the West’s greatest treasures.

In January 1908, Roosevelt exercised this right to make more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon area into a national monument. “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is,” he declared. “You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”

Congress did not officially outlaw private development in the Grand Canyon until 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Grand Canyon National Park Act. Today, more than 5 million people visit the canyon each year. The canyon floor is accessible by foot, mule or boat, and whitewater rafting, hiking and running in the area are especially popular. Many choose to conserve their energies and simply take in the breathtaking view from the canyon’s South Rim–some 7,000 feet above sea level–and marvel at a vista virtually unchanged for over 400 years.

READ MORE: How Old Is the Grand Canyon?

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